The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is asking for feedback on plans to seek stronger powers for the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

The NFCU tackles serious, organized, or complex cases of fraud within food supply chains, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The agency was leading or supporting 36 operations at the end of the third quarter in 2021. The 2022/23 budget for the unit is £5.8 million ($7.3 million).

The theory is that enhanced capability would enable the NFCU to more effectively detect and investigate food crime. Proposed powers listed in the 12-week consultation include the ability to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview suspects under arrest.

PACE powers
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 includes the ability to give additional investigatory powers to food crime officers of the FSA in England and Wales. These are known as Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) powers.

Separate legislation covers such powers in Northern Ireland and the FSA intends to hold a public comment period there at a later date. It also does not apply to Scotland because Food Standards Scotland has the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU).

Examples of food crime include the diversion of unsafe food meant for disposal back into the supply chain, the illegal processing of food, or adulteration with other substances. The impact, on consumers and businesses, can be physical and financial.

“The proposed changes are a crucial tool to make sure that investigations can happen more quickly, while also freeing up local police services so their vital resources can be diverted to other priorities,” said Emily Miles, FSA chief executive.

“At the same time any use of these investigatory techniques will be restrained, focusing on effective regulation to prevent and detect food crime, and subject to robust controls and external scrutiny. We remain committed to using any enhanced powers in a proportionate way that keeps the public safe, with strengthened safeguards and oversight arrangements to guard against their abuse.”

Progress to date
The NFCU, created in 2015, has more than 80 specialist staff but does not have the full range of powers needed to get the evidence necessary to secure prosecutions, so it relies on the help of the police or local authorities. This can lead to delayed investigations and take resources away from other police issues.

In an ongoing investigation, theft facilitating further food crimes, in the form of waste diversion, has involved the removal of food worth more than £6 million ($7.6 million). It has also led to suspended approval to handle animal by-products for a multi-million-pound business.

Other open cases include the suspected substitution of UK meat and fish with cheaper imported products, and a distribution fraud where British businesses are having their identities cloned to fraudulently secure large volumes of products on credit from other food businesses only for these products to be diverted upon delivery.

Operation Atlas recently became the NFCU’s first case to go through the process from start to finish. It involved Jack Finney selling 2,4 – Dinitrophenol (DNP) internationally, as well as steroids and prescription only medicines on the Dark Web. He was charged with eight offences, including some under the Food Safety Act 1990, and was sentenced to 28 months in prison in December 2021 following a guilty plea.

Evidence from the comment period will inform recommendations made by FSA to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who will decide on the content and timing of any legislation changes.

More details about the powers and how to respond to the comment period, which closes on Aug.18, can be found here.

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